I have often wondered what drives us towards a specific vocation. Because of a picture in a book I opened at age 15, I knew what I wanted to do with my life.
I was in the library at U.S. Army Base at Fort Gulick, in the former Panama Canal Zone, browsing through the book shelves. Little did I know that in a few moments my life would suddenly change direction.
I’d never heard of Thomas Merton when I picked out his book, The Waters of Siloe. I opened it up and saw a picture of a monk. I knew immediately that this was my path. I did not have to think about it, or struggle over it; it was a given.
I finished high school knowing this was my calling. I didn’t understand how I knew, but I just did. When I was getting close to graduation, I realized I was too young to enter a monastery, so I joined the Navy for four years and ended up seeing much of the world.
While in boot camp, I learned about life on a naval ship. I knew that if I was assigned to one, I would never become a monk. One night I said to the Lord, “I think my sense of vocation to monastic life is false — I’m going to get on a ship and that will be the end of it.”
Three days later I got my orders to report to a Navy destroyer. That, I thought, was the end of my chances of becoming a monk. Then two days later, however, I was called into the company commander’s office and told that my orders and been changed — I was going to Midway Island.
Midway turned out to be a great place. I could have stayed forever; but, most important of all, during my four years in the Navy, I was never assigned to a ship.
My last tour of duty was with a Construction Battalion Unit (CBU) in Antarctica where we built much of the town of McMurdo. On the way down there, we stopped off at Christchurch, New Zealand, where I drank myself into permanent sobriety because, in my drunkeness, I found myself so empty, lonely and afraid.
Shortly after the end of my naval service, I entered the Monastery of the Holy Spirit in Conyers, GA. I had been there for only a few months, when someone did a reading from Thomas Merton.
This time I interpreted the reading differently — I thought, “I really need to get the hell out of here!” When I left the Chapter Room, I was convinced that I didn’t belong with these good men. I went up to my room, exhausted, and fell asleep.
While sleeping, I had a dream in which Thomas Merton came to me and asked, “Mark, do you know what a monk is?” I thought about it for a moment and said, “No, I don’t.” Merton smiled and said, “A monk is a man who clings to God, even when he is in despair.”
I woke up, went about my life at the Monastery, and have stayed for 43 years.
That dream is still fresh in my mind.